King Lear, a Pandemic, and the Good Life

StationElevenIn Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel creates a rich novel structured around the intersecting lives of main characters as they are impacted by a world-wide flu pandemic. If you love excellent world-building, beautiful writing, interesting characters, and a compelling plot, you’ll enjoy this book.

But, as in all really great books, this novel goes much deeper than the surface story to explore deeper questions. The book delves seamlessly into nuanced explorations of technology, connection, art, and purpose. The pandemic provides a great hook and drives the narrative, but in the end the reader is left thinking about ways to make better choices even if 99% of humanity is not wiped out by the flu any time soon.

Mandel’s work joins an increasingly popular genre. The end-of-the-world-as-we-know it framework is of course a good plot propeller, but I think it resonates now because people feel harried and fragmented and sometimes it really seems like it would take something massive–no electricity! no internet! zombies!–to jar us out of our warp speed.

But this feeling–that we are caught up in modern life and have no choice in the matter–is an illusion. And it’s one of the themes Mandel explores so well in Station Eleven. Before the collapse, Mandel’s characters can’t see their way clear to do what they really love, live the way they really want to, establish deep connection with their families, or stay true to themselves.  They are caught up in the superficiality of social media interaction, chasing fame, sleep-walking through jobs full of banality and cliches and long purposeless hours in a desk chair.  When the modern era collapses around them, they find ways to live with purpose and beauty even in the midst of uncertainty. Both eras see characters who create and characters who destroy, those who choose to add beauty and those who feel locked in by their circumstances.

As their stories unfold through flashbacks and the real-time narrative arc, we begin to see that the characters may have had the freedom to make difference choices in the pre-pandemic world too, which leaves what would otherwise be a kind of dark story with a pervasive sense of hope.  Maybe we don’t have to accept the surface-level friending and flippant comments, the rat race of how careers are supposed to work and endless chasing after illusory rewards and empty goals.  Maybe instead we can choose–even in our modern milieu–for deeper relationships and greater purpose, for truth and beauty and a life well-lived.

Station Eleven is the sort of novel you should not start at 9pm, because you will want to stay up all night reading it.  It’s a fantastic story and very well conceived, beautifully composed with lovely use of language and scene.  But it’s also an invitation to think about what matters in life and how you can live more deliberately, and that makes the book even better than its technical excellence and entertainment value.

I’d recommend this one pretty highly, and think it would also be a great book club selection – so many things to think about and discuss, with lots of possible perspectives and positions to explore.


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